From D&S collective member Smriti Rao; I am posting this belatedly:
India-watchers across the world celebrated the unexpectedly strong victory of the Congress-party–led coalition in Indian elections, interpreting it as a victory for centrism over extremism of both the religious and (left) economic kind. Journalists for the mainstream press in the west seemed as relieved about the poor performance of the left parties in India as they were about the defeat of the right-wing nationalist party, the BJP. Every report on the Indian elections seems to end by predicting that the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, can now push forward with reforms—the codeword for economic liberalization—now that his hands are no longer ‘tied’ by a strong Left party presence in the government.
And yet, as these same journalists attempt to explain why the Congress won, they usually point to India’s relative insulation from the current economic crash—a result of its moderation in the pursuit of economic liberalization (staying away from further financial sector liberalization, for example)—and its institution of some social safety net programs—particularly a national employment guarantee scheme in rural India. As left commentator Vijay Prashad points out, both ‘achievements’ were at least partly the result of pressure from the very same Left parties these journalists seem to criticize as holding India back and neither would suggest that this government should interpret its victory as a mandate for further liberalization. (See this Counterpunch article.)
The recent appointment of Congress Party veteran Pranab Mukherjee as Finance minister suggests that while the Prime Minister is planning to push the liberalization process forward, he may be willing to proceed cautiously. While Mukherjee cut his political teeth in the Congress’ socialist days, he is best known for being a political survivor, able to reinvent himself as the environment around him changes. He was instrumental in pushing forward the recent nuclear deal with the US—a far cry from the days when political upheavals in India were routinely attributed by the Congress Party to the foreign hand’ of the US. And he is clearly on board with the broad idea of economic reforms—the government yesterday announced it was considering removing its decades-long program of subsidizing gas prices (see this Reuters report). However, unlike one of the other possible candidates for the Finance Ministry post, he is not considered a free-market ideologue. Let us hope he, and the Prime Minister, vindicate the faith the Indian voter has placed in them.